Globally more than 150 million children under age 5 suffer from undernutrition. Animal-source foods, such as meat, milk and eggs, could fill gaps in these children’s diets by providing important nutrients that are difficult to obtain from plant-source foods alone. This can help them grow up healthier and stronger. But especially in low- and middle-income countries, many families with young children can’t afford or access animal-source foods.
RTI is conducting research on the role of animal-source foods in the diets of mothers and children in developing countries. Already known and trusted for our work in the international food security and agriculture sector and our research on nutrition, we have combined these areas of expertise to investigate ways to improve nutrition for the vulnerable populations we serve.
We recently conducted studies in Kenya and Rwanda, both of which face high rates of undernutrition among mothers and children. These studies demonstrate our commitment to understanding issues surrounding animal-source foods. The results will inform our future design of nutrition interventions around the world.
The Kenya Egg Study
Eggs are nutritious, containing protein and essential fatty acids that may reduce a pregnant woman’s risk of having a low-birthweight baby and could benefit brain development in children. They’re also versatile and easy to cook and combine with other foods.
In Kenya, however, anecdotal evidence suggests that many pregnant women avoid eggs. They believe that eating too many eggs will cause their babies to grow too big and lead to a difficult delivery.
We set out to understand the beliefs and practices surrounding egg consumption during pregnancy among Kenyan women. Our larger goal, in alignment with the World Health Organization’s global targets for 2025, is to reduce the incidence of low birthweight and stunting.
Our study involved in-depth interviews with pregnant women ages 18 to 39, along with people close to them – husbands, mothers-in-law, community health workers and health care providers. We also conducted recipe creation workshops, encouraging women to try new ways to cook eggs. In the final phase of the study, we gave households each a week’s worth of eggs, and interviewed them afterward about the experience.
We found that, contrary to popular belief, more pregnant women, husbands, mothers-in-law and health workers said that eggs were good for pregnant women than bad. However, only 25 percent of pregnant women had eaten an egg the day before the interview. Most participants said that if a health professional recommended eggs, they would accept that advice.
Based on our study, we see an opportunity for Kenyan communities to improve maternal and child health by encouraging pregnant women to eat eggs. Public policies to increase both egg supply and demand could make a difference, because the cultural barriers to egg consumption are not as great as previously thought.
The Rwanda Milk Quality and Consumption Study
Cow’s milk is another animal-source food that can benefit mothers and children in low-resource settings. In Rwanda, the government sponsors a livestock asset transfer program, providing a cow to families of the lowest two social classes in an effort to help them gain self-sufficiency. The program, known as Girinka, has benefited these families economically, but does it improve their diet and their nutritional status, as well? Our study aims to find out.
With funding from USAID through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems at the University of Florida, RTI, the International Livestock Research Institute, and the University of Rwanda are conducting an impact evaluation of the Girinka program. Our evaluation measures milk consumption habits, along with economic and nutritional well-being. It focuses on three groups of families: families with Girinka-sponsored cows, families with Girinka-sponsored cows who also received a behavior change program, and families of a similar profile who were on the list for Girinka-sponsored cows, but who hadn’t yet received them.
As part of the study, Three Stones International collaborated with RTI to develop a behavior change communication program that emphasized the benefits of cow’s milk and other animal-source foods. The behavior change program recommends that children and pregnant and lactating women have a cup of milk and at least one other animal-source food per day, and that 12 months is an appropriate age for parents to introduce cow’s milk to children. It also discusses milk allergies and how to handle and store milk safely. The behavior change communication materials and training plan were approved by the Government of Rwanda’s National Early Childhood Development Program and the Rwanda Biomedical Center. The program was implemented by Government of Rwanda Community Health Workers, who were supervised by Community Environment and Health Officers. This strategy was adopted to improve the sustainability of the program.
Our baseline survey found ample evidence for Rwanda’s need for better nutrition. Within the two districts included in the baseline, 42 percent of children were stunted, and approximately 9 percent of households had severe household hunger using the Household Hunger Scale. Children ate an average of three food groups each day, below the four food groups required for minimum dietary diversity. Only about half the children in the study had consumed animal-source foods the day before the survey, most often in the form of blended cereals, legumes, and powdered milk, provided by the government to young children to eat as porridge.
At baseline, our study uncovered an association between Girinka participation and reductions in stunting. At the end of this year, we will conduct the follow-up research, which will provide evidence about the impact of the behavior change program.
The Role of Food in Improving the Human Condition
Because undernutrition can cause both cognitive and physical health problems, it severely undercuts human potential. A country whose children are undernourished can find its educational and economic growth stunted as well. By focusing on nutrition for mothers and children, countries can help ensure that their citizens have a healthy start in life. Our efforts to understand nutrition and promote the availability and consumption of healthful foods around the world have shown that animal-source foods play an important role.
A focus on animal-source foods is an important part of RTI’s food security and agriculture efforts, which include research and development work worldwide. For people to thrive, their food supply must be accessible, nutritious, safe and sustainable. Our experts are helping countries, food producers, and families around the world face challenges to all these aspects of global food security.